Saudi Arabia resumed indirect talks with Yemen’s Houthi movement to cement a faltering ceasefire, sources familiar with the discussions said, as the UN pushes for de-escalation to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak.
The Iran-aligned Houthis have yet to accept the nationwide truce prompted by the pandemic and announced by the Saudi-led coalition last week. Violence continued on several fronts.
The ceasefire was meant to take effect on Thursday, a day before Yemen recorded its first virus infection.
Aid groups say a coronavirus outbreak could be catastrophic given Yemen’s shattered health system as well as widespread hunger and disease after five years of war in which more than 100,000 have been killed.
Saudi and Houthi officials communicated over the weekend as Riyadh sought to reach understanding on a binding truce, sources close to the discussions told Reuters.
“Saudi Arabia id serious about ending the war but it will depend on how far they can go to appease the Houthis and build some trust,” said a source.
The renewed push came after the coalition air strikes on Houthi-controlled towns and villages, despite the ceasefire, to halt Houthi advances in al-Jawf in the north and towards Marib, the last stronghold of the Saudi-backed government in central Yemen, local officials said.
The violence could complicate UN efforts for virtual talks to agree a mechanism for a permanent truce, a co-ordinated effort to combat coronavirus and confidence-building measures to restart stalled peace negotiations.
SAUDI SEEKS EXIT
Houthi officials dismiss the coalition truce announcement as a ploy and said the group submitted a comprehensive proposal to the UN.
Saudi Arabia, under intense Western scrutiny after the 2018 murder of prominent Saudi jounalist Jamal Khashoggi, has been trying to exit a costly and unpopular war in military stalemate for years.
Its key coalition partner the United Arab Emirates last year scaled down its military presence in Yemen, leaving Riyadh to lead the campaign.
As the kingdom deals with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and a plunge in crude prices on its own economy, the matter has taken on added urgency, said April Longley Alley, deputy programme director, MENA, at International Crisis Group.
“The prospect of coronavirus spreading in Yemen offers a moment and a humanitarian imperative to revive the political process,” she told Reuters. “But a ceasefire agreement alone may not be possible and will not be durable absent economic and humanitarian confidence building measures and a plan to revive a political process.”
Riyadh held backchannel talks with the Houthis late last year but little progress was made on a truce to relaunch talks to end the conflict, largely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
One source said there are differences in the movement, with Houthi officials wanting to accept the truce and others insisting the alliance should first end a sea and air blockade. The coalition aims to prevent arms smuggling by patrolling Yemen’s coast and controlling airspace.
“I believe there is genuine interest on both sides to bring this conflict to an end, but they just don’t know how,” said Abdulghani Al-Iryani, senior researcher at the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies.